Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, an important intellectual and cultural center in Germany and the seat of a court that flourished with particular brilliance in the late 18th century. Beethoven’s father, a court musician, recognized his son’s unusual musical gifts and sought to exploit them to his own advantage. Yet despite his scheming, which included representing Beethoven as two years younger than he actually was, and despite the boy’s extraordinary talents, Beethoven never achieved wide acclaim as a child wonder as had Mozart a couple of decades earlier. Indeed, it was not until after Beethoven had permanently settled in Vienna in 1792 that he earned public recognition, initially as a virtuoso pianist, and later as a composer.
Contemporary accounts of Beethoven’s playing stress especially the compelling emotion of his performance and his spectacular improvisations. In the words of one witness:
His improvisation was most brilliant and striking. He knew how to achieve such an effect upon every listener that frequently not an eye remained dry, while many would break out into loud sobs, for there was something wonderful in his expression in addition to the beauty and originality of his ideas and his spirited style of rendering them.
The course of Beethoven’s life was profoundly affected by deafness, whose first signs appeared a few years after his arrival in Vienna when he was in his mid-twenties. At first he tried to conceal his condition because, as he confessed in a will he drew up in 1802:
It was not possible for me to say: speak louder, shout, because I am deaf. Alas, how would it be possible for me to admit a weakness of the one sense that should be perfect to a higher degree in me than in others, the one sense which I once possessed in the highest perfection, a perfection that few others of my profession have ever possessed…. For me there is no recreation in the society of others, no intelligent conversation, no mutual exchange of ideas. Only as much as is required by the most pressing needs can I venture into society. I am obliged to live like an outcast.
Beethoven’s hearing continued to deteriorate and during the last decade of his life he was almost totally cut off from experiencing the performance of music. At the premiere of his great Ninth Symphony in 1824, he sat among the performers, following the manuscript of the score, but hearing nothing. As reported in a contemporary account:
At the performance, a man went up to him at the end of each movement, tapped him on the shoulder and pointed to the audience. The motion of the clapping hands and the waving of handkerchiefs caused him to bow, which gave rise to great jubilation.
Beethoven’s deafness brought his career as a pianist to a premature end. In his frustration at not being able to hear, he would strike the keys with such force that he broke hammers and strings, while in soft passages, he would play so lightly that no sound came out. He was also compelled to curtail his activities as a conductor because of incidents such as one where “the deaf composer caused the most complete confusion among the singers and orchestra and got everyone quite out of time, so that no one knew any longer where they went.”
Beethoven’s social relationships also suffered. Beethoven would speak, but the spontaneity of the conversation suffered because those with whom he spoke had to write down their words. Many of these conversation books have been preserved and are an important source of information about Beethoven’s thoughts, personal relationships, and daily routine. Observers of the time frequently describe Beethoven as eccentric and coarse-mannered, and these qualities seem to have been accentuated by his deafness. For example, he spoke too loudly and often hummed to himself when out walking.
As Beethoven retreated more and more from the world, he directed his energies increasingly to composition, for though he could no longer hear with his physical ear, he experienced music and worked out his musical ideas in his hearing mind. According to his account:
I carry my ideas about with me for a long time, often for a very long time, before I write them down. In doing so, my memory is so trustworthy that I am sure I will not forget, even after a period of years, a theme I have once committed to memory. I change a great deal, eliminate much, and begin again, until I am satisfied with the result. The working-out, in extension, in paring down, in height and in depth begins in my head and, since I know what I want, the basic idea never leaves me. It mounts and grows, I hear and see the work in my mind in its full proportions, as though already accomplished, and all that remains is the labor of writing it out…. You will ask me where I get my ideas. That I cannot say with certainty. They come unbidden, indirectly, directly. I could grasp them with my hands. In the midst of nature, in the woods, on walks, in the silence of the night, in the early morning, inspired by moods that translate themselves into words for the poet and into tones for me, that sound, surge, roar, until at last they stand before me as notes.
During the last years of his life, Beethoven was in poor health off and on. Early in the winter of 1826 he became progressively weaker and died in March of 1827. His funeral, three days after his death, was attended by 20,000 people.
Beethoven has long been recognized as one of the towering geniuses in music and as one of the great figures in artistic expression generally. Probably more than any other composer, his music suggests the grappling of a courageous soul with universal meanings and truths. The originality and profundity of many of his works, especially those from the last decade of his life, still astonish and challenge performers and listeners today. His compositions include 9 symphonies, 32 piano sonatas, 16 string quartets, and one opera as well as numerous other orchestral, chamber, piano, and vocal compositions.